Dr. Imad Damaj is a visionary leader who understands that an increasing religious diversity presents communities and the nation with a choice: bridges or barriers. “We have a new reality, and we either have to choose between being an inclusive, open place to all, or to continue in the lines of divisions and anxieties and intolerance and bring the worst out in us. And I think this diversity we have is going to bring out the best in us.” Damaj’s leadership in the interfaith movement in Richmond is shaped by this view. His role as president and founder of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs, involvement in multiple interfaith and community organizations across the Greater Richmond area, and a key leader in both the Muslim community and a range of civic organizations, place Damaj at the center of Richmond’s interfaith scene.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Damaj grew up in the midst of civil war; his first experiences with interfaith relations were set against a backdrop of tension and violence. While he embraced his faith more deeply in high school, a move to Paris to attend graduate school brought him face-to-face with a secular culture that challenged his identity as both a Muslim and immigrant. “That was very challenging and forced you to be inward, to be really thinking always, ‘I’ve got to protect myself,’” Damaj recalls. When he arrived in Richmond in 1991, he was shocked by the open role religion played in American society. In fact, his first exposure to interfaith work was through the Boy Scouts of America, when he was invited to be a Boy Scout leader at a local Baptist church. Although initially he felt like “that Muslim guy with an accent,” this experience opened his eyes to the importance of both civic engagement and interfaith relationships; he eventually formed a Boy Scout troop at the Islamic Center of Virginia.
And then 9/11 changed everything. “It was a shock” to the Muslim community in Richmond, and to Damaj himself. September 11th changed Damaj’s view of his own community, the community at large, and his role as broker between them. He quickly realized that to fight ignorance and bigotry meant to be proactive, not to be put on the defensive. This was the inspiration for founding the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Policy, an organization that seeks “to educate about who we are, to engage and to serve” and to “work for the betterment of all, not just Muslims.” It began small, bringing diverse groups together to serve at the food bank, or build a house with Habitat for Humanity. As his connections with congregations and organizations grew, Damaj found himself in an increasingly influential role. As a connector, he is more than just a voice for the Muslim community; he is a voice for the Richmond community as a whole.
Expanding his conception of community became vital to Damaj’s goals for Richmond. “I really don’t have any separate vision for the Muslim community than the community at large,” he notes. “That’s my vision: one community working together and facing the challenges together and growing together and taking care of each other…when one part of the community is missing, there’s a void.”
Damaj uses Plato’s metaphor of the cave to describe his transformation from a young Muslim boy in Beirut into an interfaith and civic leader in Richmond, Virginia. “There are these people sitting in the cave and seeing each others’ shadows in the fire,” he explains. “And one of them got outside the cave and saw the world. He realized he has to go back and tell them that there’s a reality out there…so I went from being in a cave, isolated in my thinking, thinking that I’m going to have to protect my kids in order for them to continue being faithful Muslims and going outside is going to make them vulnerable. But no, the opposite is true.”
 “Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs.” World Religions in Richmond. http://www.has.vcu.edu/soc/rdr/Culture.groups/VirginiaMuslimCoalition.html ↩